As co-op gaming continues to grow, we are seeing it find it's way into other genres. This year we saw realtime strategy game Red Alert 3 create an entire campaign around co-op play; now Relic is entering the fray with Dawn of War 2 for the PC. Promising to deliver drop in and drop out play through the entire campaign in two player co-op is no easy task. We get the goods from the Relic team on how the co-op mode works.
Co-Optimus: With Dawn of War, Company of Heroes, and now Dawn of War II, it seems the RTS genre is finally getting some needed innovations and moving away from the typical "zerg rush" type thinking to a scenario where you're controlling only a few units and the management of those units is critical to success. What lead to this shift in dynamic?
Relic: I wouldn’t say it was one particular thing that led us down this path, but rather, a combination of several.
When we released Company of Heroes we proved that a reduced emphasis on base building, controlling a smaller number of units and using environmental tactics to overcome an opponent – was a successful model. It’s a very rewarding feeling when you use tactics to overcome an opponent with greater numbers, similar to how I imagine the Roman’s felt when giving beat downs to barbarian tribes. When it came time to make a sequel to Dawn of War, we wanted to simply focus on really awesome, over the top but tactical combat.
Typically when you start an RTS game, you might hack a way at a tree for a while, bring wood back to your base, then build a couple of structures and finally send out some units to fight, win that mission and then start over again. Combat as our main focus, we no longer had the need for base building and resource collection. We wanted to instead concentrate on making the units that you do control more exciting and rewarding to use.
Another thing we felt was absent from the RTS genre was any sort of attachment to your units. When you lost a unit or squad it didn’t really matter because you could just build another one exactly like it. RTS games have “mildly” improved on this, generally through veterancy – you’re more likely to focus on keeping your level 3 riflemen alive, as after all they’ve helped you win a few fights at that point and they’re a bit better at killing people. We asked ourselves - what if those squads had names, faces, unique voices and personalities, carried over level to level and could be improved over time – would that make you care more about your units? This kind of unit progression and detail is something you would only see in an RPG, but it fit in with our design goals.
As we were developing the game, we found that the fewer number of squads you controlled the more you could actually focus on your units – it’s positioning, health, energy, when to use certain abilities and when to engage. As soon as we added a fifth squad to the mix, we observed that those of us with less “micro” tended to either start moving everyone around in a giant blob or forgetting about units entirely. Four turned out to be the magic number. After all, these aren’t your typical RTS units, you don’t simply attack move them across the map. Each squad can play quite differently from the other and can be equipped with various different equipment and abilities, meaning that they require that you manage them correctly in order to maximize their destructive capabilities.
Co-Optimus: You mentioned in an interview with IGN that you looked a lot at the multiplayer statistics and noticed how "players want to co-operate in a story-based setting not just in comp-stomp." With the full single player campaign mode in Dawn of War II open to being played co-operatively at any point in the campaign, what can players expect from the play style? RTS mixed with Gears of War 2 Exposition?
Relic: When you actually deploy to the mission you’ll notice that while this is definitely an RTS, it’s one that requires more precise control and positioning over your limited number of specialists. The odds are definitely stacked against you as you’ll often face large waves of mixed units and vehicles; but as a Space Marine that’s just business as usual.
As far as the actual campaign goes - players can expect to play through a non-linear story in which they evolve their characters through unlocks, gear and abilities and choose which missions they take. You start the game as a recently promoted Space Marine commander tasked with defending your main recruiting worlds from being overrun by marauding orks. You quickly discover that there is something more sinister afoot as a cloud of Tyranid Mycetic spores descends over the planet. You’re cut off from reinforcements and it’s up to you to hold out against all odds.
Like most RTS games this sets up an overarching long term goal that you must complete – hold out until help can arrive. Where it differs is that these goals can be tackled in a non-linear order, and even then you can choose to do non-critical missions for other benefits.
Keep in mind that you have a limited number of deployments within a single day (these can be increased) and many of the missions expire within a few days meaning that you will often have to make tough choices. You might be poised with defending two different territories each granting you different advantages in and out of game.
Before each mission you get a briefing detailing why this particular Warboss is fouling up the sector and how it relates to the story. When you’ve deployed to a mission you will hear banter between the squads both relating to the objective and what is happening on the battle field. After you’ve completed a mission you’re usually treated to some new information and / or an update on your overall progress in the sector. By the end of the game you will almost certainly love or hate some of your squad mates, and you may just learn why that salty old jerk Avitus hates the Imperial Guard.
Co-Optimus: How exactly does the co-op work? Does AI take over if the other player isn't there?
Relic: You can invite a friend to join you at any point in your campaign through Games for Windows Live. If they accept they are taken to your battle barge and given control of two of your squads. The battle barge is where you equip and upgrade your squads and choose which mission to accept. Your friend could be in the middle of a game when they get an invite and as soon as they accept they will be taken to the barge.
In a non-co-op singleplayer game, you have access to six squads and they all have different roles and capabilities. When you have decided upon which mission to attempt, you then choose three of the other five squads plus your force commander to deploy down to the planet. In Co-Op it is exact same principle, except for each player must pick which two they each want to take.
When you are deployed to the map, your co-op buddy is a slightly different variation in colour scheme than yourself so you can tell whose who. You are not able to control your opponents squads and vice versa, but to express dissatisfaction with their performance you can throw grenades at them, yell at them through voice chat (thanks to Games for Windows Live) or charge through their cover leaving them needlessly exposed.
If your opponent drops out or quits, you get control of his units.
Co-Optimus: Are there any special moves or features you can do in co-op that you couldn't do in single player? Perhaps a combined special attack or something?
Relic: There are none that are exclusive to co-op per se, but many of the abilities were designed with cooperative play in mind. For example your tactical marine sergeant Tarkus has an ability called Tactical Advance. When activated it makes him immune to suppressive fire and he will also take less ranged damage. This means that if an enemy heavy gunner is suppressing your units in area making them move very slowly and fire less often, Tarkus can break that suppression, move up and throw a grenade.
If you decided to invest points you earned from leveling up in Tactical Advance, it will then affect units in an area around Tarkus. Now when your buddy is suppressed or taking too much damage you can protect a less “beefy” unit like your scout marines. Another that Tarkus has is taunt ability which forces enemies to target him, perfect for saving your friend that decided to test the scouts melee prowess vs. an Ork with a giant axe.
Although many combination style tactics are available to the player when playing by themselves, I personally found that – unless you’ve got some elite micro, some of the more complex ones are much easier to execute when you have a buddy focusing on controlling your other two squads. The units have plenty of abilities and so by only controlling two of them it makes it much easier to focus on executing them correctly. On the higher difficulty levels, there is little room for error and so the more attention you can pay to a particular squad, the more likely you will eliminate your enemies before they can deal any significant damage.
Co-Optimus: If a co-op player fails - do both players fail?
Relic: If both you and your co-op buddy’s squads are knocked out, you fail the mission and are returned to the barge. However, as long as one of your squads remains (with the exception of the dreadnought) you can revive his units, similar to games like Gears of War.
Once you are back on the barge you can re-equip your units and try the mission again so long as it hasn’t expired, as some missions only exist for a few days.
Co-Optimus: One of the features that you've focused on is having players become invested in their hero and squad. Part of this investment comes from making choices about what missions to accept and seeing the affects those choices make both on your squad and the overarching story. Will having a friend along help out mean that you both can take on more missions, or is the second player tied to the same choices the first player makes?
Relic: If you invite someone to your campaign, they will be playing your campaign and it does not affect their own. If you are having a difficult time completing a mission or one of your friends has a spare thirty minutes you can invite him along. They can continue playing with you as long as you like but when they have to leave or if they happen to lose their connection, you can continue playing as normal.
You can’t take on any extra missions per se, but it may make the game a bit easier, earning you extra deployments, which do allow you to take more missions. This is obviously possible when playing alone, but in my experience it was easier to accomplish with a friend (especially on higher difficulty settings).
The other player is free to equip their chosen squad with what gear they want and upgrade their character through the leveling system as they see fit. My most recent co-op venture through the campaign saw me taking the melee specialist squads while my friend decided to use two ranged squads and upgraded and equipped them how he preferred.
Co-Optimus: Is Co-Op Playable both online and via a LAN?
Relic: Co-op is playable online as it requires that you be signed into Games for Windows Live in order to invite your friends to the campaign.
Co-Optimus: What sort of tutorials can we expect in the game? Will there be any kind of advanced options other than the typical - "This is how you move!" and "This is how you build a soldier" ?
Relic: Instead of a tutorial, we use something called a “Simplified Entry Point”. When you start a campaign you aren’t posed the question of whether you’d like to try a tutorial, you just start playing. For those at home in an RTS setting they can simply go about playing, those that are treading new territory have access to quick tips which explain the basic functions in the game similar to a tutorial. If something is too basic you can simply close it and move onto the next tip or continue playing.
The main thing we try to employ in the campaign is a sense of pacing and gradually increasing the number of squads and abilities that the player has access to. As you are granted access to controlling a new squad you receive an objective which highlights their core abilities and role. For instance with the scout marine Cyrus, a stealth specialist, you are told to destroy a building that houses an enemy heavy machine gun. Running your troops up in the open is a bad idea, and so you are told to infiltrate, flank the building and then deploy a demolition charge which will solve the problem in a pile of crumbling concrete and chunks of flesh.
Anything more advanced then that we leave up to the player to discover on their own. A lot of the fun in this and many other games come from discovering interesting new ways to use units and abilities. I look at the units, their wargear and abilities as tools that are a part of helping solve tactical puzzles. When the game is released there are going to be lots of people finding new ways to solve these puzzles in ways we never imagined.
Co-Optimus: You guys seem to have a good partnership with Microsoft with the Games for Windows Live stuff as well as with Valve for Steam (the beta is exclusive to Steam) - what was the thought process behind using to services like this?
Relic: Games for Windows Live offers a lot of the features that we need to make a successful and competitive multiplayer community. It has excellent NAT negotiation which aids in connecting players, TrueSkillTM matchmaking, leaderboards, game invites, built in voice chat and friends management.
Steam is an excellent distribution platform and allows players to access their games from any PC without a disc, receive continual updates and has quickly become a standard amongst hardcore PC Gamers.
It made sense for us to partner with both Microsoft and Steam for a successful Beta launch.
Thanks Relic! We can't wait to get our hands on the full version come February 19th!